Beneath a Scarlet Sky takes place in Milan, Italy during World War II. At the start of the novel, it is June of 1943, and the Nazis are beginning to occupy more and more of Italy, including Milan. However, despite these dramatic circumstances, Pino Lella, the novel’s protagonist, starts the story focusecd on normal teenage concerns. In particular, he wants to find himself a girlfriend. Together with his brother Mimo and his friend Carletto, he wanders Milan, looking for the love of his life. Eventually, he spots a beautiful young woman named Anna, whom he asks out on a date. Anna accepts the offer but does not show up to the date when the time comes. The same night, Allied forces begin bombing Milan. This scares Pino’s parents, and they send Mimo away from the city to Casa Alpina, a religious camp in the Alps. Pino’s father, Michele, wants to send Pino too, but Pino insists on staying in Italy. For a while, Pino’s father respects his son’s wishes—however, after the Lella home is bombed, he sends Pino to live at Casa Alpina.
At Casa Alpina, Pino and Mimo live with Father Re, who is an old family friend. Father Re is a supporter of Italian resistance efforts, and he coordinates with other high-ranking religious members to help Jewish people escape to Switzerland where they cannot be persecuted by the Nazis. Father Re trains Pino and Mimo physically and mentally to undertake escort missions, which involve leading groups of Jewish people to Switzerland, often in treacherous conditions. The most perilous of these missions involves a pregnant woman named Mrs. Napolitano, who is understandably afraid of the many dangerous paths Pino and Mimo lead her on. However, like the rest of their missions, Pino and Mimo ultimately lead Mrs. Napolitano to safety. When not undertaking escort missions, Pino spends much of his time with Alberto Ascari, an aspiring young racecar driver who teaches Pino to drive. Additionally, Pino has the misfortune of meeting Tito and his band of outlaws. Tito and his men regularly harass the towns surrounding Casa Alpina under the guise that they are partisan soldiers. Pino makes Tito his enemy one day at Casa Alpina after he steals a gun that Tito was pointing at Father Re.
A few days before Pino turns 18, Michele tells Pino he must return to Milan. Once there, Michele tells Pino that he will be drafted on his 18th birthday. Pino has two choices: he either must join the Italian Army or the SS. If he joins the Italians, he will be sent to the Russian front where he will likely die. Alternatively, if he joins the SS, he will become a pariah in his own community, but he will be safe. Pino doesn’t want to do either, but eventually he decides to join the SS as part of Organization Todt. Shortly after becoming an SS member, Pino is recruited by General Leyers to be his personal driver. Pino’s Aunt Greta and Uncle Albert are thrilled. The two of them have connections with the Allies and they want to use Pino as a spy. Pino accepts the role, but is told that he cannot tell anyone, even his own parents, what he is doing.
Shortly after being employed by Leyers, Pino reunites with Anna, who works as a maid for Leyers’s mistress, Dolly. Leyers spends a lot of time with Dolly, meaning that Pino gets to see Anna regularly. However, the rest of his time is spent driving Leyers, often to places he would rather not go. Quickly, he learns that the Germans are enslaving vast numbers of people from a variety of regions. They use these people to complete arduous work and rarely feed them. Additionally, Pino takes trips with Leyers to see Benito Mussolini, Italy’s puppet dictator, who is concerned with his lack of power. All of this information he reports back to his aunt and uncle who find it incredibly useful.
However, Pino’s new position comes at a cost. Because he cannot tell anyone the truth, he loses Carletto’s friendship and the love of his brother. Both of them think he is a traitorous Nazi. This is especially difficult for Mimo, who eventually leaves Father Re’s camp to join the partisans. However, there is one person who Pino does tell the truth: Anna. After Anna catches him snooping around Leyers’s apartment, Pino fills her in on his role as a spy. Gradually, the two of them fall in love with one another and Anna begins helping Pino however she can. Additionally, Anna tells Pino that she came into her current position after her father died, her mother disowned her, and her former husband was killed in the war. None of this information bothers Pino; it only makes him love her more. Pino asks Anna to marry him when the war is over, and she accepts. This gives Pino hope and allows him to continue his physically and psychologically draining job as Leyers’s driver.
Toward the end of the war, when it is clear that the Germans are losing, Pino is finally able to tell Carletto and Mimo the truth. Both of them forgive him immediately and apologize for their behavior. Additionally, Mimo gives Pino a job: he must arrest Leyers and turn him over to the partisans. Pino accepts. A few days later, when it is clear the Germans have lost the war, Pino points a gun at Leyers, arrests him, and takes him to the partisans, who thank Pino for his service. For a few days, Milan is chaos as the Italian fascists, the Nazis, and the partisans fight for control of the city. In the chaos, Dolly and Anna are captured by the partisans and labeled Nazi collaborators. While looking for Anna, Pino comes across a mob and decides to follow them. The mob leads him to a public execution where several so-called Nazi collaborators are being put to death by a firing squad, including Dolly and Anna. Pino tries to stop them, but he is too late. Both Anna and Dolly die. The crowd sees that Pino is upset and assumes that he is a Nazi collaborator as well. He is chased throughout the city, though the mob never manages to catch him. After Anna’s death, Pino contemplates suicide, though he never goes through with it. He also attempts to recover Anna’s body so he can give her a proper burial, but he fails.
Shortly after Anna’s death, Benito Mussolini’s body is brought to a city square in Milan and Pino watches along with an American soldier, Major Knebel, as the Milanese people desecrate it. Additionally, Major Knebel gives Pino a mission. He wants Pino to transport General Leyers, who is now being labeled an American hero, to the Austrian border. Pino accepts the mission, but only because he plans to kill Leyers on his way to the border. Carletto also joins in on the mission. On the way to the Austrian border, Leyers reveals to Pino that he specifically asked for him to be his driver because he admires his skills. However, such flattery does not work on Pino, who eventually pulls a gun on Leyers with the intention of killing him. Along with the other atrocities he is responsible for, Pino largely blames Leyers for Anna’s death. However, Leyers points out to Pino that he was going back to check on Anna and Dolly the day Pino arrested him. As such, Leyers says, Pino is at least equally responsible for what happened to Anna. Pino thinks Leyers is right and decides against killing him.
Eventually, Pino, Carletto, and Leyers approach the Austrian border. However, in the final stretch, they encounter Tito and a number of his goons. Tito tries to exact revenge on Pino, but before he can, Leyers shoots him and Carletto guns down the rest of his men. Shortly afterward, the three men reach the border, where American troops are waiting for them. Before Leyers leaves to go with the Americans, he shakes Pino’s hand and whispers “Now you understand, Observer.” Pino is dumbstruck. “Observer” is the codename given to him by his aunt and uncle. The fact that Leyers knows it suggests that he may have known Pino was a spy from the beginning. This leaves Pino questioning all of his interactions with Leyers from throughout the entire novel. Together, Pino and Carletto depart for Milan, and Pino expresses to Carletto that the events of the war will be with him forever.